Ditchling blacksmith has leg amputated to get back to work: dedicated craftsman shares his inspiring story
A Ditchling blacksmith who had his leg amputated after being diagnosed with diabetes is determined to get back to the work he loves doing.
Nigel Stenning, 63, is recovering after his surgery in summer by exercising every day in his wheelchair and learning to use a prosthetic leg.
Nigel, whose workshop is based at The Oaks Poultry Farm, is also monitoring his blood sugars carefully.
“It had never occurred to me that I was diabetic,” said Nigel, who was shocked at his diagnosis because he had no ‘classic symptoms’.
He said his left leg began to swell during the daytime in June, which he thought might be related to his smoking.
“I would get up in the morning and it would be okay again,” said Nigel who continued to work on a project that required him to sit on a stool for most of the day.
“My leg began to become a bit more painful but I wanted to get to a certain stage of the job,” he said.
Nigel then worked for three days on a lathe making bolts and fittings and his leg became very painful.
His former apprentice, who had been in the French army as a paramedic firefighter, asked to have a look and took Nigel to go to hospital immediately afterwards.
Doctors told Nigel that he had diabetes and an infection in his foot, which required an operation to remove most of his heel and Achilles tendon.
After a few days he was informed that his foot would not heal enough for him to walk on it.
“I was offered some experimental plastic surgery but the other option was to have my leg taken off and to wear a prosthetic leg,” said Nigel.
So Nigel chose to have the leg amputated 120mm below the knee.
“I want to be able to go back into the workshop and I want to go back onto the fire again,” he said, adding that this would require standing up unless he only wanted to make small pieces.
Nigel has had a passion for blacksmithing since he was 12, having been introduced to the craft at Hassocks County Secondary school.
He has been using his metal working skills all his life and made the Ditchling Village sign, which was adapted from a design by Shirley Cox.
He also made the railings for The Bull Ditchling and won the blacksmith award of Show Champion at the Edenbridge and Oxted country show in 2019.
Nigel said his stump has now healed to the point where he is having physio sessions with a prosthetic leg.
He is learning to walk in all directions, as well as turn around and use steps.
Nigel said being able to stand up again is ‘exhilarating’ but said he still has ‘phantom feeling’ in his missing leg.
“It feels as if my leg’s there but I can’t see it,” said Nigel, adding that it felt like his foot had gone numb when he first looked down at his prosthetic leg.
He said he has not been given the leg to take away with him yet but he is ‘playing it by ear’ and working through each day at a time.
Nigel said he came to terms with the loss of his leg fairly quickly but that it was harder for him to accept his diabetes diagnosis.
“Having my leg cut off I know that I’m going to be able to train and I’m going to be able to walk again nearly as well as I could walk before,” he said.
“But in the case of eating and drinking things that I particularly like I can never go back there without endangering my body and my life.”
Nigel said he has ‘completely and utterly’ changed his diet, avoiding hard cheese, pasta and potatoes, and stopped drinking alcohol.
“I’m now eating a far more plant-based diet that ever before,” he said. “I’m using meat basically to flavour food and not eating large amounts of it.”
“I used to really like having a decent blowout meal and several pints to go with it, but that’s not an option for me anymore,” he said.
Nigel has also got a FreeStyle Libre monitoring system to help him track his blood sugars and stick to his target.
“I’m more able to predict what will happen when I inject my insulin and also when I put food or drink substances inside my body,” he said.
Nigel’s advice to anyone with diabetes is to ‘sort out their diet’.
“I’m fairly able to keep my blood sugars in my target range and people need to do that,” he said.
“I feel that a lot of people don’t bother, or possibly a lot of people don’t seem to fear it enough when they’re first diagnosed with diabetes.”
“But my introduction to being diagnosed with diabetes was quite brutal,” he said.
“I’ve lost my leg and I don’t want to lose the other one.”
Nigel also recommends exercise and said he pushes himself in his wheelchair for at least a mile every day.
He believes that the Covid lockdowns had an impact on his health by taking away opportunities for exercise and encouraging him to sit around for longer periods of time.
He has been a volunteer at Michelham Priory for the past 17 years and before the lockdown he would work their fire and handbelows, which he said was good for his circulation.
Nigel’s son Nando said: “I am very proud to have such an inspirational character in my life.”
“I hope when life throws adversity at me I can learn to act the same as my dad; by accepting what I can’t change and making the most of what I can do,” he added.